Submissive, Bottom, or…?

I’m often irked by the restrictions and assumptions associated with most of those labels I currently identify myself with (“feminist” and “anarchist” primary among them). It’s only relatively recently that I’ve begun to think of myself as a submissive, and only more recently that I’ve started to reconsider that label and all the baggage it carries.

That reconsideration comes mostly from a disturbing trend I’ve noticed that tries to define “submissive” in a particular way, and to cast all those not fitting in with that definition as “not real submissives — it strongly reminds me of debates around the term “feminist.”

Trinity writes, in several comments on A Place to Draw Blood Laughing, that there is indeed a distinction between “real” submissives and fake submissives, or rather between submissives and bottoms.

I really find [the] whole “oh, I’m not a masochist” schtick annoying. Fine, if you’re a bottom and are specifically negotiating for the meeting of your own needs. Less fine if you’re presenting yourself as submissive, as someone who wants to serve another. Service is not about finding someone who happens to suit your perfect fantasy, but about giving of yourself because of a driving inner need.

[….] There are a lot of people out there in the world who love to talk about how sub they are but as soon as you talk to them, “Oh, no pain. Oh, wait, you’re not gonna wear a corset for me?… What IS this, anyway?” …That to me is assuming bottoming (wanting to do something for one’s own fun) is submitting (wanting to serve, obey, please.)

“Hey, will you flog me? I’d get off on it” doesn’t [bother me] at all. Or “May I lick your boots?” or any number of things a person would not do or offer to do if it didn’t bring him, himself, sexual gratification. It’s when someone pretends to understand that what I want from SUBMISSION is not that, and then attempts to play games with my head, that I get pissed. There’s nothing wrong with being a greedy little bottom.

I totally get Trinity’s beef with subs/bottoms who try to dictate her role as a domme down to the color of her boots and the type of rope she uses to tie them up. But I have to admit that I’m still confused by her distinction between “submissive” and “bottom.” Is it that the bottom gets off on specific acts she is ordered to do, or has done to her, and the submissive gets off on the orders themselves, regardless of whether or not they’re pleasurable? That is, a “real” submissive, I think she’s saying, is one who will equally enjoy washing his mistress’ toilet, changing the oil in her car, sucking her cock, or being under her boot.

So, are you not a real submissive if you ask your domme permission to lick her boots, or request anything at all from her? Are real submissives the same as servants, slaves? And by extension, are you not a dominant if you only ask your submissive to do things you know she derives pleasure from, if you don’t really enjoy orders for the sake of making orders?

I’ve generally thought Trinity’s writings are awesome, and I don’t exactly disagree with her, here — but I do find the general “real submissives do X, Y, and Z” stance to be a little too reductionist. I don’t think it’s a question of whether or not someone is a real submissive or not, but a question of better negotiation and discussion about what’s going on. It’s one thing for a self-identified submissive to gush about his total subservience and willingness to please mistress, oh, anything mistress wants, and then get cranky when she isn’t the perfect Queen Bitch he was fantasizing about. I totally get how frustrating that must be. But it’s quite another for that same submissive to say, “well, I actually don’t really like pain all that much, and I especially enjoy this and that,” and to then get upset at him for posturing as a submissive when he’s really a “greedy little bottom.” I understand that Trinity is specifically saying there’s nothing wrong with being a bottom, and that she has no problems with bottoms who make requests of her — but only as long as they understand that it is different from submission, as she defines it. I imagine I’d be pretty upset if I was to start talking to a dom about playing together, and once I indicated that I wasn’t willing to do X or really wanted Y, he told me I wasn’t a real submissive. Note that I wouldn’t be upset if he said that certain conditions were “musts” for him, or that he wasn’t interested in certain things I wanted, and that therefore he didn’t want to play with me. That’s fine. But to say, “oh, you’re asking to be flogged, and you don’t want to cook me dinner? Then you’re using the wrong label to describe yourself.” — that’s pretty insulting.

I generally become frustrated with thoughts like these, because they usually just go in circles until I break out with a moment of “Who cares? Really, who cares?” Because as long as I’m doing what I enjoy, and what my partner enjoys, what difference does it make whether I’m a “submissive” or a “bottom with submissive tendencies and a strong masochistic streak”?

5 comments so far

  1. Trin on

    To me, “bottom” means someone who is not looking for power exchange, or someone who is looking for fulfillment of one very specific fantasy. None of that’s bad. Most people I know are either tops or bottoms; deeper power exchange is either not really interesting to most people or too difficult to really set up. Deep power exchange by its nature requires a very solid intimate relationship to keep maintained. Most people aren’t looking for that, that I know.

    As long as you’re mentioning my post, I think you really need to include that the specific person I was referencing there absolutely insists his purpose in life is to serve women and understand that his role as a male makes him inferior — yet any time that I and various dominant women mentioned that he was behaving inappropriately, he argued.

    You can’t have it both ways in my opinion. If you present yourself as Abject Obeyer (which I wouldn’t actually want in a submissive — what I want is attentive service), who knows that others are his betters, then you’ve put yourself into a small narrow label wherein it’s really suspect when you then start going “I’m not into this and this and this and that’s right out and…”

    It doesn’t mesh with what he’s claimed to be.

    If by “submissive” you mean “I like subspace,” that’s fine (and I’ll probably like playing with you) but it’s not fine if I make clear that in a long-term relationship I am looking for service, you agree to give it, and then won’t or can’t because you don’t like it. It’s part of the deal to get clear on what we mean by all this.

    Personally I tend to think there should be three words, “bottom” and then a word meaning “I like subspace” and then a word meaning “I want to dedicate myself to service in a relationship.” I don’t really care which of those two is “submissive” but I think it shouldn’t mean both.

  2. Eileen on

    You pretty much hit the nail on the head involving my reaction to Trinity’s comments. I also “don’t exactly disagree” with her, but at the same time I find the notion of “real” anything involving labels to be tricky and generally fraught with problems. As I mentioned in my response to her, it all seems to be about personal vocabularies. That, and our ability and willingness (and right, I think) to define ourselves.

  3. subversive_sub on

    Trinity — thanks for writing! I’ve just read your post on this topic over at sm-feminist, and it’s given me a lot to think about. I’ll respond over there once I’ve digested a bit…

  4. devastatingyet on

    I think of this as the paradox of submission. The way I generally conceptualize my answer is like this: being submissive means that the idea of submitting appeals to you. But we all have preferences and needs, and different things will move us differently. It’s important to find a dom who has enough overlap with your interests that you can have a mutually satisfying good time.

    I definitely do not, by contrast, take the position that submission is like some kind of an absolute agreement (even excepting limits) where then if the dom constantly makes you do housework, you should just be pleased, or at least quiet, because you’re a submissive.

    I don’t know. It’s easy to be attracted to extremes or absolutes or “rules” but I don’t think real relationships work that way. Mine doesn’t, anyway.

    I love this blog, by the way. I added you to my blogroll.

  5. devastatingyet on

    (…but I can’t get my blogroll to update itself to show you. Grrr. Just in case you go look and wonder why you’re not there.)


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